Set Lists Lie/When Phil's In the Drivers Seat, Ya Got Nothin' to Worry About
(Review written immediately after the show, by a guy who has whined about many MANY shows post '78):
Sunday March 27
1) Set lists lie
2) When Phil's in the driver's seat, ya got nothin' to worry about
Tonight just might have been the best Dead show I've seen since the 1982 Jerry's birthday show in Manor, Texas.
I know that some people who were there tonight will say it wasn't that hot a show, and they'll say it mostly because the set list isn't that impressive. Others will say that it was indeed an excellent show -- because they played Morning Dew. I would suggest that the reason they played Morning Dew at all was because the band was so hot tonight that it would have been a mistake NOT to try a challenging song like the Dew with everyone playing so well. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, yes?
A disclaimer: I was lucky enough to be sitting in the third row center tonight, thanks to a ticket I got from mail order. I'm not bragging; I mention it for two specific reasons. First, there have been so many complaints about the Grateful Dead mail-order that I feel compelled to state in the interest of equal time that I got an excellent seat, I don't know anyone at the Grateful Dead office, and my order was ordinary in every way, except that I was requesting single tickets for each show. Second, I can't deny that sitting that close may have affected my opinion of the show.
The show started with a superbly played Jack Straw. When Bobby took two steps back to get ready for the jam, he stumbled backward against the drum risers and had to brace himself with one hand to stay upright. It wasn't exactly Frank Sinatra face down on the stage, but added a nice touch of humor since he was OK.
Jackaroe followed, and we got the first sense that Jerry really wanted to play, after a Wednesday show filled with tech problems and a lackluster show Friday.
Bobby selected It's All Over Now, and the band cooked on it. Jerry played Stagger Lee, and while still having trouble with lyrics, ripped on the solos. The end of the song -- "The song that woman sung/Was look out Stagger Lee" gave us a hint of the fireworks to come.
Queen Jane Approximately followed, and it was terrific -- really! It's nice to see how far this song has come since the day when the Dead first started playing it.
Candyman was next, and while Jerry forgot some more words, the playing was transcendental. Bobby starts the final chorus at the wrong time, and Jerry shoots him his fatherly Look of Death.
Easy Answers followed, and I get the impression that Phil has been listening to the version that Neil Young, Bobby, and Rob Wasserman play on the new Trios album -- lots of great croaky vocals on the chorus from Phil.
Deal closed the set. For everyone who has sat through mediocre versions of this song, or started heading for the bathroom at this inevitable set closer, tonight made up for all previous sins. Forget everything you thought you knew about how this song is played. This was the best version of Deal I've heard since 1978 at William and Mary College. The jam was blistering hot, with a series of rave ups ("rave ups"? get out those ancient Yardbirds albums!) that added crescendo on top of crescendo; just when you thought it couldn't get any higher, Jerry would up the ante. Phil Lesh, the world's only living animated cartoon, grits his teeth and makes faces throughout this peak. Words don't do justice. Trust me on this one.
(End first set. See second set review follows)
Everyone is hoping for Scarlet/Fire. (OK, maybe just me, but I'm hoping A LOT!) There may have been some disappointment as Samson and Delilah started. This is where we are reminded once again that set lists mean nothing -- the topic here is MUSIC.
The guitarists eased into Samson gently, instead of letting the drummers pound it out first. Far and away the best Samson and Delilah I've seen in 18 years. Blistering solos. Phil way out in front from here on out. Amazing jams. A much extended song, nothing like I've seen in years, if ever.
At this point, Jerry is still having some type of tech problems with his guitar, and there is much scrambling on stage as Parish tries to get it fixed. Bobby tells us that the band is experiencing technical difficulties. Vince noodles out some small instrumentals. Jerry has left the stage. A few minutes later he is back, but it still isn't fixed right, so off again. Bobby says that they're going to take a break while they work on this. "Talk among yourselves." About 15 minutes pass while they work on these problems. SO... for all who live and die by set lists, does this count as three sets? (Reminiscent of Englishtown -- "Uh, we're going to go get some salt tablets. Or something. We'll be right back.")
The band is finally all back on stage, and Jerry plays Iko Iko. Not frequently the second song in but...
It is superb. As mentioned, when Phil's in the driver's seat, ya got nothin' to worry about. If there is any single items that made tonight's show so phenomenal it's that Phil and Jerry (and Bob once again) were all interested in playing well on the same night. Phil was loud, intelligent, and creative. It was one of those shows where you got to hear them thinking spontaneously on stage. As a dancer, I love Iko Iko as a chugging Cajun-style tune. Tonight it has a solid jam in it with the guitarists endlessly playing with different rhythms and accents.
Bobby starts Playing in the Band. This is going to be my favorite type of show -- an ordinary set list with extraordinary playing. The jam in Playing is some of the finest MUSICIANSHIP I've heard from the Dead in years and years. Beautiful. Reckless. Creative. Articulate. No noodling around tonight -- we're going somewhere special.
Playing leads into Uncle John's Band, which is stupendous, with new improvisations in the jam at the end, and Phil's bass crystal clear. The transition from Playing in the Band to Uncle John's Band alone would have been the highlight of any show in recent memory. I'm always frustrated that this space IN BETWEEN songs, where I think some of the most interesting music takes place, is when other people like to talk and fidget. Oh me, oh my.
The drums are excellent, and the space that follows is the best so far at Nassau, and one of the best I've seen in recent year. Here's where I will disagree with many, I suppose. I LOVE the drums/space most nights. I know that a lot of people consider this a time to go to get a beer or fast-forward the tape, but I remain convinced that this is where some of the best psychedelic music of the shows is played. I'm loving ever moment of this very deep space, and people all around me are talking about what song they think will come next, what they should do after the show, and a tape they have of some show from years ago...
Bobby returns to the stage first, and it's just him and Bralove for awhile. The rest of the band follows, and the guitarists space is superb -- gone is the discordant noise of previous nights (which was interesting in its own way) and instead we have challenging, exciting, carefully crafted music.
The Other One follows. Hard to convey how smooth this transition was -- no fishing around, no half-starts; just skilled musicianship. Phil was hanging over Harry's on-stage soundboard (bugging him as usual) and looked like he might miss his cue. Turned at the last instant to play his opening bass lick. A breathtaking version of the song, leading into, yes, the best Morning Dew I've heard since '82. Jerry's voice was uncannily strong, and the playing matched it. As usual, I tried not to be distracted when the band played the quiet instrumental section while some in the audience clapped along off the beat. When the crescendo came, it didn't stop -- layer upon layer, each out stripping the first. Just when you thought they'd reached the peak, THAT turned out only to be an introduction to a higher level.
End of set.
The encore was Johnnie B. Goode, and even that had its moments, although mostly I thought that it was a nod to good old fashioned rock and roll after an evening of brilliant experimental music.
And what of the second half of Playing in the Band? And did we miss a verse of Uncle John's Band? And meantime, after an evening of stellar musicianship, folks all around me are still scribbling in their little set list books, and wondering why more interesting songs weren't selected.
Now I'm scared to go tomorrow night. I've had a lot of theories about the Grateful Dead over the years, and each one of them has been proved wrong...BUT... I've never seen them play the smoker show TWO nights in a row. I've seen good shows in a row; even great shows; but not mind benders like this one. Tomorrow is either going to be a tremendous disappointment, or the greatest show of all time.
Or something completely different.